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Saturday, March 17

Hamsterism and Being Helpful in Iraq

"Dear Pundita:
My question regards neoism, as in neoliberalism (as applied to international relations), neorealism, neoconservatism, etc. Do you think there is something unique to humans that disposes them to attach "neo" to a concept rather than devising a new descriptive term for a category of ideas?
Intergalactic Fan"

Dear Intergalactic Fan:
An idea might be so close to an earlier concept that one is justified in terming it neo, as in "neomercantilism," but Pundita gets your drift. Particularly if you're from another planet, it would be helpful if a new descriptive term was created for every new concept. That's so one isn't always having to run to Wikipedia to learn what the "neo" in front of a word refers to.

But it's fairly obvious that true neoists are a reincarnation of a pet hamster who pretty much lived on an exercise wheel. They can't go forward, you understand; they can only go round and round. Despite their claim to newness, they don't feel right with the world unless they are going over old ground.

Hamsterists, shall we call them, insist on applying the same solution to every problem, no matter how different the problems under consideration.

The fields of foreign policy and economics seem to hold a special attraction for Hamsterists. Famous examples of Hamsterism are Jeffrey Sachs -- who would apply neoliberal economic theory to Hell Itself as a solution to the heat problem there -- and Zbigniew Brzezinski. But U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez is a classic example of Hamsterism, which he unleashed on US foreign policy initiatives in Iraq. When asked by President Bush to figure out some sort of useful plan for rendering immediate help to the Iraqis, here is what Mr Gutierrez decided:

A top priority for the Iraqi people was to transform Iraq into a showcase for neoliberal economic theories. To get the ball rolling, Gutierrez advised halting all food rations for Iraqis, as the way to kick-start Iraq's virtually nonexistent agriculture private sector. And he wanted the US to pressure Iraq's government to cease the monthly rations, which more than half of Iraq's population relies on for baseline sustenance.

This advice for a nation full of starving jobless people; a nation with massive water and electricity shortages, a nation with boarded up factories that can't produce farm fertilizer, much less farm tractor parts; a nation that is a laundry list of everything humanity's done wrong in government since 1,500 BCE; and on top of which a nation in the middle of war and in the throes of trying out a new form of government. A government that would have been toppled by riots if food rations had been suspended.

American readers who scoff at Pundita's explanation should read every paragraph of Rajiv Chandrasekaran's latest report about Washington bureaucracies at work on helping in Iraq, which recounts the Gutierrez debacle.(1) A reincarnation of a pet hamster is a straw to clutch at, if you can't bring yourself to confront that our secretary of commerce is a moron.

One might be tempted to laugh it off, if Mr Gutierrez had only advised. But he tried to actualize his hare-brained scheme. It is a credit to the human race that Iraqi and American officials in Iraq ganged up to block the "zombie idea" as one observer called it. But Gutierrez and his go-fers wreaked havoc before they were beaten back. A former embassy official summed up the horror of the situation:

"I can't tell you how many hundreds of hours everyone has wasted on this issue, when there were all sorts of more productive things they could have been doing with their time."

Not to mention all sorts of other places for US tax dollars.

Once you read the report you might observe that Gutierrez was simply carrying the ball forward for Paul Bremer, who proposed ending the food rations when he ran the CPA. I think Bremer has an excuse for everything wrong he did in Iraq; I think he was suffering from traumatic stress while he was working there. Gutierrez does not have that excuse; he was advising on the situation in Iraq from the safety and order of Washington, DC.

1) Washington at War Food Fight
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